Review of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Maxine Peake’s Beryl at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. March 2016
Beryl Burton is the cycling superstar that you’ve probably never heard of. British All Round champion for 25 consecutive years from 1959 to 1983, she held every national title (at one point simultaneously), won seven world titles, and her 1967 record for the 12 hour time trial is unbeaten to this day.
Maxine Peake’s Beryl is an entertaining celebration of this extraordinary woman’s life, told with a cast of just four, in a series of short scenes linked by narration. There’s humour as well as drama, as we go from Beryl’s childhood in Leeds and her marriage to Charlie, to the years when she was the all-conquering champion of the road and track. Samantha Power captures Beryl’s single-minded dedication to becoming the very best, and her refusal to give up, whatever the odds.
Told as a child that she had a weak heart and should avoid exercise, Beryl ignored doctors’ advice, often cycling hundreds of miles a week in training. Her ‘Yorkshire grit and determination’ powered her to dozens of titles, championships and awards, but, unlike today, very little money.
Beryl’s story is from a time when sport really was done by amateurs. Modern day elite athletes get funding and sponsorship, and can call on a battery of specialists from coaches to nutritionists. Beryl’s support staff was her husband Charlie (a nicely judged performance by Lee Toomes), she had to cycle to competitions, and her specialist race diet was cold rice pudding and liquorice allsorts.
The cast – Power, Toomes, Rebecca Ryan and Dominic Gately – each perform dozens of roles, changing in and out of characters as diverse as rhubarb farmers and HM the Queen and often directly addressing the audience, and the drama takes place in one set, which (like the cast) multi-tasks very well. The only negative is probably the space – although the Rose is a great theatre, it’s a large barn of a place and the audience can seem a long way from the stage, so the actors have to work harder to try to create the warm, intimate atmosphere that the play needs.
Beryl Burton’s story deserves to be better known and this play is a wonderful introduction to her life. You don’t have to be interested in cycling (or to come from Yorkshire) to find this a very enjoyable and funny evening, and it’s well worth catching at the Rose before next Saturday.